It’s easy to get discouraged when we’re trying to learn a difficult new subject. But according to the creator of one of the world’s most successful online courses, almost anyone can learn anything—with the right technique.
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, is the creator of “Learning How to Learn,” a massive open online course that’s already been taken by approximately 2.3 million students across 200 countries. The course draws on neuroscience research to offer practical advice for anyone struggling with a tough subject or a procrastination habit. Now she’s co-authored a new book, Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying, that offers advice for children and young adults just in time for back-to-school season.
Quartz spoke with Oakley about some of her best tips for learning, whatever your age—from why you shouldn’t study in the same place every day to how the “hard start technique” can improve your performance on tests.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: Why, and how, do you believe that anyone can learn anything?
Oakley: My philosophy is that, because people often don’t know how their brain learns, they tune out to learning.
Knowing a little bit more about how your brain works can really help to be a little more compassionate with yourself when it might take you a little more time than another [person] to learn a topic. And, if it does take you a little more time, you might actually be able to learn it more deeply than the person who is a speedy learner. It’s very valuable to learn more about how your brain operates, because then you can use it more effectively; it becomes a more effective tool.
What got you interested in this?
I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. I really loathed those topics. It’s kind of ironic, in that I’m now a professor of engineering, and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
I didn’t begin studying remedial high school mathematics until I was 26 years old. I learned math as an adult, and it wasn’t easy. But then I applied ideas from language learning to learning mathematics: Plenty of practice and repetition. And, it worked!
[Math] didn’t come naturally to me, and so that makes me much more aware of what a typical learner faces when they are trying to learn something new and difficult, rather than what a gifted learner thinks. And that means I approach learning with somewhat of a different eye than many who have gone through a standard, pedagogical program.
So thinking about learning differently was beneficial to you?
I think so. If you look at Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he talks about substantive innovations in science, and they’re often made by either really young people, who haven’t had time to be indoctrinated into the typical viewpoints, or individuals who originally were trained in a different field, and came and look at this new field with a fresh perspective.
Let’s talk about something that a lot of people struggle with: Procrastination. How can people avoid procrastinating on their studying?
One of the best ways to tackle [procrastination] is the Pomodoro technique, which was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. The brilliance of this technique is, it’s so easy. You set a timer for 25 minutes, and then you focus as intently as you can for those 25 minutes. Whenever you catch your thoughts wandering, which they will, you just bring them back and continue to focus, because anybody can work for 25 minutes.
The most important part of all is, when you’re done, be sure to take a little break. Reward yourself. The break is extremely important because we always used to think that you just learn when you’re focusing; but you actually continue to learn when you’re taking a break. That’s when your brain begins to make sense of all of this.
Moving onto another important and popular topic: Sleep. Why does sleep matter so much to learning?
There’s two reasons why sleep is important. One is that, when you go to sleep, your brain cells shrink, and this allows cerebral fluid to flow past your cells and wash out the toxins that accumulate during the day. This means that, if you try to go with minimal or no sleep before a big test, for example, you’re actually allowing yourself to take a test with a poisoned brain. You may know the material really well, but you’re certainly not going to be as effective as you would be if you had enough sleep.
The second reason that sleep is important is because [that’s when] the neural architecture of learning really is taking place, not so much when you’re learning during the day. So, if you’re shortcutting your sleep, you’re actually making it much tougher for your brain to learn.
Are naps a good idea?
Napping can be beneficial, and it does seem to refresh, and it does seem to help with learning. Experts recommend around eight hours of sleep a day, but that’s for most people; there’s a tiny percentage of the population that has what’s known as the “short-sleep gene,” and they can get by with four hours of sleep a day. But, odds are, you are not one of those people, especially if you’re feeling really tired if you don’t get enough sleep. Can napping make up for missing sleep? It depends on the person, and they have to watch themselves. If you’re only getting two hours of sleep at night and maybe a nap or two during the day, that’s probably not catching you up on everything you need.
Should people listen to music when they study?
It’s probably not bad, as long as you’re not listening to really loud music or music with lyrics. But also be aware that, if you are studying for a test, you can get used to the music and you’re probably not going to be hearing that music when you’re taking the test, so it might turn into a missing environmental cue that makes it just a bit tougher when you are taking the test.
What about cramming. Good or bad?
Cramming is not a good thing. And we know really well that, if you space out your learning … you will learn far more and it will stay with you far longer. And that makes sense, because if you harp back to sleep, and when the neurons are growing, if you have 10 nights where you have new synaptic connections growing and consolidating the new information, you’re going to have a really nice neural architecture. If you’re trying to do it all in one day, you have one night of synaptic growth, and it’s just not going to build you as strong of an architecture as you think. And more than that, most normal human beings can only truly focus intently for about four hours a day, which is not to say you can’t work for 10 or more hours a day. But the stuff that’s really toughest, we can only focus on for a limited period of time.
Four hours? So does that mean we should just give up doing any intensive work after that?
Not at all. It’s just that you want to do the things you find most difficult, earlier. Try to do the hardest stuff first. Your mind can get tired a little bit. It’s more like saying every student probably has four hours of prime time a day, but they can still make good progress with the rest if they use them effectively.
What are some tips you can give to build a better memory?
For our purposes, there are two different ways that you can store information in your long-term memory. One is as facts and the other is as pictures.
In my book, I equate storing a fact in your memory with trying to squeeze toothpaste back into a toothpaste tube. Storing a fact in your long-term memory is a really hard thing to do, just because it’s not tangible and you can’t really picture it. But humans have, through an evolutionary process, gotten really good at remembering things that they picture. So, if you can convert some fact into a picture, you can stick it into your long-term memory a lot more easily.
[For example: Let’s say you have to memorize the Spanish word “zumo” (which means “juice” in English). To do that, you need to find an image in your mind that will anchor you to the world’s meaning. As Sarah DiGiulio writes, you might think of a sumo wrestler drinking juice. When you hear the word “zumo,” your brain will recall that sumo wrestler drinking his juice, and remember the meaning of the word. If you’re having trouble understanding how to do that, you can check out Oakley’s online resource guide (pdf).]
Some people believe you should always study in the same place, but in your book, you disagree. Can you explain why people should change up where they learn?
This is simply growing from research. When you’re learning something, your brain is like a sponge, and it’s not only learning what’s on the page in front of you as you’re practicing, but also sort of affiliating that with the surroundings while you’re studying, like a library.
So, if you study in the same place, you’re actually getting really used to it: When you’re in that place, this is where you recall this material, this is where you work with it. And that’s all well and good, but if you go take a test on that material in a different place, then suddenly your brain is [struggling]. It limps a little bit. It doesn’t seem to do as well.
A lot of people feel they learn best in a particular way—whether through visual learning, reading, etc. But the theory of learning styles has been disproven. Do you believe that people would benefit from leaning into whatever style of learning they believe fits them best, or should they shake things up?
Here’s what can happen if you lean into what you believe is your strength as a learning style: Say that you believe you are more of an auditory learner. That means your approach everything in an auditory fashion. But generally, the majority of the tests you take are not going to be auditory tests, they’re going to be written tests. So, if you lean into what you think is your learning style, you’re disenfranchising [yourself] by giving yourself less experience with other modalities of learning.
The reality is that we learn through all of our senses. People who don’t think they’re kinesthetic, they often just haven’t heard the word ‘kinesthetic’ before.
Research has shown that those who believe that they learn better from hearing, when tested in an actual situation, learn just as well by seeing, and vice versa. In other words, people can, in all good conscience, believe that they are better at one than the other. But research has shown they’re just as good at both.
Tests make a lot of people anxious. What are some tips that can help?
First off, preparing well for a test is a good idea. Learning better breathing techniques can help [with testing anxiety].
Another thing is to reclaim your thinking. When you feel that stress coming on, think, “this test is making me feel like I’ve got to do my best.” That reframing has been shown to be very helpful for students.
If you have studied well for a test, this is what you should do: It’s called the hard start technique. You quickly scan over a test. You then pick the hardest problem, and start with that. But then you pull yourself off [of it] as soon as you feel stuck. Go off and work on something easier, and work on another, easier problem. But what you will find is that, when you eventually return to the problem … you will actually be able to make progress. If you follow conventional wisdom, and save all the hardest problems for last, you are waiting for the most stressful time of the test, and that can make things much more difficult for you.